Owls, Hawks & Falcons

Alex and I attended a lecture at Smithsonian about raptors.  Hawks and other raptors were in serious trouble into the 1970s, when they were being killed by hunting and poisonings of the environment.  But today all significant species have come back and are now very common throughout the U.S.  Hawks have taken care of lots of the pigeon, squirrel and rabbit problems in Washington and other big cities.  I had noticed that there were fewer pigeons around lately.

I learned a few things I didn’t know.  For example, the tufts on the heads of owls are not ears.  Owls’ ears are placed unevenly on their heads, with one lower on the head than the other. When owls move their heads in circles, what they are doing is listening differentially to identify the source and distance of objects. When owls go after prey, they are more often using their sense of hearing than sight. The speakers said that the owl can pinpoint a prey a hundred yards away by sound alone.

A few other facts – You can tell falcons from hawks by the shape of their wings.  Hawks have rounded wings, while falcon wings are pointed. Great horned owls have no sense of smell, so they are one of the only birds to regularly prey on skunks. The speaker said that great horned owls usually stink on ice as a result.  Hawks have phenomenal vision, but they kind of zoom in on prey and do not see things not in their target zone. This is why they sometimes get hit by cars as they go after something near a road.

One of the most interesting things about the lecture came from the demographics of the audience.  The room was packed with at least a hundred people.  When one of the speakers asked how many people had heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh (from ancient Mesopotamia; it mentioned falcons) dozens of hands went up.  This is not something that most people know about.  On the other hand, when the speaker asked how many people in the audience were hunters, nobody raised a hand.  I might have paid no attention, but I know so many hunters and down in the south everybody hunts.  Washington does not really represent America.   I have been hunting a couple times, but I am such a bad shot that I never got anything.  Alex went hunting rabbits with the club and achieved similar results.  We didn’t raise our hands either for Gilgamesh (which we have both read) or hunting, so I suppose the sample was not exactly fair, but still in the main it is interesting.